Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 17
In the fall of 2014, the world learned of a remarkable discovery: An old book in a French library, acquired in the 1790s, was identified as an unknown copy of the 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare—the first collection of Shakespeare’s plays. Before this find, there were 232 known First Folios in the entire world. Now, there were 233.
Rebecca Sheir, host of the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series, talks with Eric Rasmussen, who authenticated the French discovery. An expert on the First Folio, Rasmussen gets the call when someone, anywhere in the world, thinks they may have found another copy.
Along the way, he’s amassed some fascinating stories and observations about one of the world’s most iconic rare books. Join us for a conversation about the French First Folio, other distinctive copies, and the modern collectors, scholars, thieves, and Folio hunters who fall under the First Folio’s spell.
Eric Rasmussen is chair of the English Department at the University of Nevada, Reno, and author of The Shakespeare First Folios: A Descriptive Catalogue.
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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. © December 17, 2014. Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “Truth’s Authentic Author,” was produced for the Folger Shakespeare Library by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. Edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We also had help from A.J. Kenneson at radio station KUNR in Reno, Nevada.
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MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.
This podcast is called “Truth’s Authentic Author.” It’s a conversation with a man who has an unusual responsibility. Eric Rasmussen, chair of the English Department at the University of Nevada, Reno, is the person who’s called whenever someone, anywhere in the world, thinks that he or she may have found a previously unknown First Folio, the first printed edition of the complete works of Shakespeare.
The Folger, as you know, is home to the largest collection of First Folios, and we always take an interest in Eric’s investigations, the latest of which hit the news in November 2014, when Eric was called to a public library in the town of Saint-Omer in France. The library had a book that had been sitting on a shelf, most likely unnoticed, since it came there from a defunct Jesuit college in the 1790s. Eric was able to authenticate it as a First Folio, the 233rd ever found.
As you will hear, this is not the first time Eric has been asked to do this sort of work. Over the past years, he’s been called on dozens of times and has amassed a fascinating set of stories, some of which you will hear now. Eric Rasmussen is interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.
REBECCA SHEIR: So Eric, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today.
ERIC RASMUSSEN: Delighted to be here.
SHEIR: The first thing we have to do, even though this is a Folger podcast, believe it or not, is that we have to go through the basics, so just really quickly, can you tell us what is the First Folio?
RASMUSSEN: Of course. About half of Shakespeare’s plays were published during his lifetime in quarto paperbacks, about the size and shape of modern comic books, but a further half of them had never been published before. So seven years after Shakespeare’s death, two of his fellow actors put together a collection of the complete works, 36 plays, and this was the first time in history that a folio had been devoted completely to plays. Ben Jonson had included plays in his folio a few years before that, but he’d also included poetry and masques and things that were more standard, and people made fun of Ben Jonson. They called it his “volume of works,” and people said he didn’t know the difference between work and play. Get it?
SHEIR: Aha. [LAUGHS]
RASMUSSEN: The Shakespeare First Folio is a real milestone, in that it’s the first time that people had asserted that the plays were in fact dramatic literature. And it’s the point in history where we really start thinking of these as not simply popular entertainment, but works of literary value.
SHEIR: And this particular First Folio we’ll be talking about today, now that we’ve authenticated it, do we have any guesses about how many more of these things might turn up?
RASMUSSEN: It’s interesting we’ve found now 233 extant copies of the First Folio. That’s a pretty good survival rate if, you know, our best guess is that maybe 750 or 800 were originally printed, so that’s about a third.
SHEIR: Why is that your best guess?
RASMUSSEN: We know that the Stationers’ Company, which was the trade guild for printers and typesetters, regulated that no more than a thousand copies of any book could be printed, and this regulation was in place to basically keep printers in work, so if you had a very popular book, you couldn’t simply print thousands and thousands of copies of it, but you could print one thousand copies, and then you had to reset the type and reprint the book.
We think because of the enormous cost involved in putting together a folio, and also a folio that was devoted to plays was a unique and unusual venture, that they probably hedged their bets by saying, “Ah, we’ll print 750, therefore it’s not as much of a financial outlay as a thousand would be, but we can still recoup on our investment if we manage to sell these.”
SHEIR: How much did it cost to print one folio?
RASMUSSEN: We think about a pound, and this was an era in which a skilled workman, like a brewer, could make about four pounds in a year. So this was three months salary, and had to represent a considerable financial investment on the part of the publishers. And what’s interesting is in their prefatory matter to the First Folio, they keep telling you buy, “whatever you do, buy.” Don’t read this in the book stalls, please buy it and take it home and read it. The imperatives are said with quite some force. As such, it could only be, you know, within the grasp of the very rich, and in fact our early owners tend to be members of the nobility and knights and so forth.
And then through history, this has continued. The prices have remained high and in the 20th century, the super rich, like Henry Huntington, bought four copies. Henry Clay Folger, who was Rockefeller’s partner in Standard Oil, started buying up copies and got very into the groove and ultimately ended with 82. And continuing on into the 21st century, Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, recently paid six million dollars for a copy—gave it to his sister, I’m led to believe.
SHEIR: I hope she was grateful. (LAUGH) How could you tell that it [that is, the Saint-Omer First Folio] wasn’t one of the missing First Folios? How could you tell it was genuinely unknown?
RASMUSSEN: We’ve spent a lot of time and effort trying to track down leads of missing First Folios, and so we may have an auction catalog for a Folio that was sold in the early 20th century and has since gone missing, and that auction catalog will list identifying features or problems. There’s a Folio that has a red stain on the corner of each of the pages that was stolen from the University of Manchester. And so, you know, we’re always on the lookout. If one were to surface, you look for this red stain.
The identifying characteristics of this didn’t match anything that we’ve ever heard of before. It is surprising how often things continue to surface. I’m amused to learn that it’s about every six years. So in 2002 there was a woman in London who died intestate, and they discovered her Shakespeare First Folio, it wasn’t a particularly good one, but among her effects. And then in 2008, so six years later, Raymond Scott walked into the Folger with a copy of a First Folio, claiming that he’d been given it by one of Fidel Castro’s bodyguards, and this turned out to be a copy that had been stolen from the University of Durham in the north of England, and Raymond Scott turns out to have lived 10 miles away from the University of Durham, so he was convicted and imprisoned and, in fact, committed suicide in prison. And now, six years later, we’ve had another one surface. So, if anyone’s sort of betting on historical probability, maybe another one will surface in 2020.
SHEIR: Well, this library in France where the First Folio was found, what is your thinking as to what happened? Is it like, the last person who used the First Folio put it on the shelf, and didn’t realize it was a First Folio? I mean how does that happen?
RASMUSSEN: I think because it was missing the title page, and didn’t have any identifying marks on the binding, and because it’s in a foreign language, that they had just assumed it was an old edition of Shakespeare’s plays, but no one had thought too much about it possibly being an original. In the same way that if a volume of Racine were in a public library in the States, and missing the title page, and didn’t have any identifying marks on the binding, we might understandably say, “Oh yes, this is an old volume of French plays,” but we probably wouldn’t imagine it was a first edition.
So they’d always known that they owned this copy and, in fact, they got it out because they were just organizing a very small exhibition of their holdings in British literature and a librarian was savvy enough to say, “Well, wait a minute, this looks interesting.” And he did a little bit of background research on identifying elements of the First Folio before he contacted me.
SHEIR: What did the Folio look like? Were there marginalia in the pages? Any evidence of who maybe owned it?
RASMUSSEN: All sorts of interesting marginalia. There’s a… Henry IV seems to have received a lot of attention. Most fascinatingly, they seem to have changed the gender of Mistress Quickly, the hostess of the tavern. They’ve made her into a man. So “hostess,” the final “e-s-s” is crossed off every time “hostess” appears, and any time Mistress Quickly is referred to in a feminine way, there’s a line when Falstaff calls her “my sweet wench,” she becomes “my sweet fellow.” Someone didn’t want to play a woman. We don’t know. So that’s pretty interesting.
And then at the end of the second act, there’s a scene in which Prince Hal and Peto are going through Falstaff’s pockets, and sort of making fun of what they find there, someone has gone through the manuscript in a very early hand, so a 17th-century handwriting, and every time Peto occurs, they cross it out and they’ve written Poins. And this is interesting, because Poins has long been thought to be closer, he’s Prince Hal’s confidant, and so it makes sense for this scene to end with the two of them sort of giggling over what they find, and in fact, later 18th-century editors, like Samuel Johnson, made this change. They amended the speech headings at the end of the scene, and so this would anticipate that editorial change by about a century.
And there’s an inscription on the first page of The Tempest, which is, in this particular copy, is the first page of the book; it’s missing all the introductory material. And the inscription has the name “Neville,” and Neville is interesting because we know that the holdings of this public library came from the Jesuit college that was in Saint-Omer, France. And so the Jesuit college was there to provide Catholic education for English Catholics who couldn’t go to university, weren’t allowed to go to university, in Elizabethan England. And we know of a family called the Scarisbricks… We know that Edward Scarisbrick went to this Jesuit college in the mid-17th-century and we know that when he went, he adopted the alias “Neville.” Maybe this was his copy that he brought over with him, maybe he was a student there and wrote his name in the book. Anyway, that’s a really interesting link to an historical figure. We also know that the Scarisbricks owned another First Folio that’s now in the Folger.
It’s interesting that the title page and all the preliminaries are missing, because it’s not unusual for 400-year-old books to be missing pages. In fact, it’s missing the three pages at the end of Cymbeline, which is the last play in the volume, and this is what happens to books that have been around for four centuries. We know that. But it’s interesting if someone deliberately had taken those identifying marks off, because they were concerned about reading Shakespeare in a Catholic college. I mean, who knows, and you don’t want to access any nefarious motives to this, but the fact that they’re missing is interesting.
And it’s, you know, going back to Raymond Scott, when the copy that he brought into the Folger to be authenticated, the one that turned out to be stolen from Durham University, someone, presumably Scott, had deliberately removed the title page and the preliminaries, so that he could remove any identifying marks and library stamps and so on and so forth. So, sometimes there are nefarious motives involved in removing pages and they don’t just get lost over the centuries.
SHEIR: Speaking of missing pages, there’s a story you tell about a Folio collector in Manhattan, the McDonald’s guy? Can you tell that story?
RASMUSSEN: There’s an interestingly eccentric individual who lives in a brownstone in Manhattan. My understanding is that McDonald’s forms a great deal of his diet, and he owns a First Folio, and his First Folio had been chewed on by rats, and they chewed off the corners. And so, when he wanted to repair them, he was able to acquire original First Folio leaves of the pages in question. I’m told that at one point in its history, Quaritch, the rare book dealer in England, had a stack of up to 200 original pages from the Shakespeare First Folio in its basement. And instead of inserting the new, pristine First Folio pages, he cut off the corners, and then he took those corners and he affixed them to the pages that had been chewed by the rats with Japanese tissue paper and glue. I assume it’s very nicely done.
SHEIR: Wow. A little while back we did a podcast about the rigorous international system that exists to name stars and planets. There was a Shakespeare connection there, you should go to the website to hear that one. But it sounds like we have a comparably rigorous system in place to track and count First Folios. I mean, we’d have to, right?
RASMUSSEN: Well, we do now, and it’s largely because my colleague Anthony James West, who was a British businessman, who decided in his 50s he really wanted to pursue a PhD in Shakespeare, and so, for his dissertation, he hit upon the idea of doing a census of the First Folios. It had been about a century since Sidney Lee did one in 1902, and Sydney Lee had identified 152. And Anthony spent 15 years going around the world and he identified 80 more, so at the end of Anthony’s efforts, we knew that there were 232.
And then, Anthony had spent just a little bit of time with each one, and what he intended was he would find them, and then we would bring back a team of researchers to do a very thorough cataloging job of each copy. So, I put that team together, and then we spent seven years, really, for each volume recording that “Oh, it’s got some paw stains here, where a cat with dirty paws has clearly walked across the page,” or “It’s got wine stains,” or “It’s got some burn marks from a cigar.”
And, as you say, these then form just remarkable fingerprints for that copy, if you can say, “Well, yes, on page 17, there’s a burn mark going through Miranda’s line here.” So that if a copy were to be stolen, and the thief were to remove identifying library stamps and so forth, we could still identify any one of these books, and because they are unique and they’ve all got their stories to tell. Some of them are, you know, remarkable stories. We found a copy in Japan that had a musket bullet going through it and stopped at Titus Andronicus, which is clearly an impenetrable play. [LAUGHS]
SHEIR: So, could you look at one of these and instantly be able to say this is a legitimate First Folio?
RASMUSSEN: You can, and it’s largely because in the 19th century, immediately after they invented photography, the first books that they reproduced using photolithographic methods was the Shakespeare Folio. And they were so proud with how exact their reproduction was, they didn’t put any identifying marks, so they didn’t say this is a photo reproduction. And these 19th century facsimiles now have been conferred with some age, they’re getting to be 200 years old, so you can understand it if a collector or librarian finds this old book, which looks like a Shakespeare Folio, and so far as they know, it is.
But the difference between 19th-century wood pulp paper and Renaissance rag paper with watermarks and chain lines and so forth is pronounced. So really, all you need to do is touch a page, look at a watermark, and you’ll immediately have identified a First Folio or you immediately identified a facsimile. Similarly, when you go through copies of the First Folio, they’re often, as I mentioned, pages were missing, collectors would perhaps insert a facsimile. Or, in the 19th century, there was a fellow named John Harris, who would create a painstaking pen-and-ink facsimile of a First Folio page, and these are absolute things of beauty. They’re perfect. But when you get a page of the Harris facsimile, it’s on 19th-century paper, and that’s like the other facsimiles. It’s a completely different look and feel than original Folio pages.
SHEIR: I might be over-romanticizing this, but I feel like you’re the Indiana Jones of the Folio world. Is there a better analogy for a guy who does what you do?
RASMUSSEN: The Washington Post has called me the Robert Langdon, Dan Brown’s character.
SHEIR: Ah, Da Vinci Code.
RASMUSSEN: Yeah. I think that’s a very romantic notion. But it’s nice to have this skill set, having worked so carefully with so many First Folios, to be able to go in and virtually instantaneously be able to identify an original.
SHEIR: So, at this point, someone on the staff of the podcast wanted me to ask you this, when you get to touch a First Folio, an actual, legit First Folio, do you still get a thrill, or at this point, is it just old hat for you?
RASMUSSEN: I think it’s rather like a doctor who delivers babies, and you may have delivered 230 babies, but each one is still a miracle, and each one is still beautiful, and that was a beautiful Folio in the north of France.
SHEIR: Eric, thank you so much.
RASMUSSEN: Oh, thank you. It’s been a pleasure to talk with you.
WITMORE: Eric Rasmussen is chair of the English Department at the University of Nevada, Reno, and author of The Shakespeare First Folios: A Descriptive Catalogue, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2011.
“Truth’s Authentic Author” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from A.J. Kenneson at KUNR Public Radio in Reno.
Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website folger.edu. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.